General Information

Religion is a complex phenomenon, defying definition or summary. Almost as many definitions and theories of religion exist as there are authors on the subject. In the broadest terms, three approaches are generally taken to the scholarly study of religion: the historical, the phenomenological, and the behavioral or social - scientific.

Scholarly Approaches


The historical approach deals, of necessity, with texts, whether these be the doctrinal, devotional, or ritual texts that stem from the religious community per se or secular documents such as statistics through which the historian attempts to reconstruct the religious life of a community. The historians may weave both types of documents together to create a rich sense of the role of religion in the life of a people as a whole. A particularly fine recent example of this approach is Le Roy Ladurie's Montaillou (1975; Eng. trans., 1978), in which the social and economic life of a small medieval French village is seen against the backdrop of religious heterodoxy.

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The phenomenological study of religion, although often starting with the results of the historian, is directed toward discovering the nature of religion - the fundamental characteristics that lie behind its historical manifestations. In this particular field the classic treatment remains Gerardus van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomenology (1933; Eng. trans., 1938). Many scholars of comparative religion, such as Mircea Eliade, may also be said to fall into this category, although their relations to the historical traditions are often complex. The phenomenological tradition has been criticized, both by the historians and the social scientists, for losing sight of the details of particular religions in overly general comparison and speculation, but contemporary scholars are attempting to overcome these problems by dissolving the artificial boundaries between the disciplines.


A clear example of this tendency may be seen in the rise of social scientific studies of religion in the last hundred years. Psychology, sociology, and especially anthropology have contributed great depth to the understanding of religious phenomena. In the psychology of religion, the two most important figures remain William James and Sigmund Freud. James's Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) established a set of topics and approaches to those topics that set the overall tone for much later work in the field.

While James dealt primarily with conscious expressions of religious experience, Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition stemming from him attempted to fit the various forms of religious experience into the framework of a general theory of the unconscious. C G Jung in particular has been influential among interpreters of religion, in part, no doubt, as the best developed alternative to Freud himself.

One problem usually associated with the psychological approach is the difficulty of moving from the individual's experience to the structure and experience of the religious community. This problem has been confronted by the sociological and the anthropological traditions since the last third of the 19th century. William Robertson Smith, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber were the leading figures in creating a sociological tradition in the analysis of religion.

The year 1922 is sometimes taken as marking the beginning of modern anthropology and with it the complex studies of existing cultures and their religions that have done much to illuminate contemporary thought about religion. In that year Bronislaw Malinowski and A R Radcliffe - Brown published studies based on in - depth field work in foreign cultures. Their functionalist approach to the analysis of religion became a school, from which a steady flow of detailed studies of religion in cultural context continues unabated. Perhaps the most eminent figure in this tradition was Sir Edward Evans - Pritchard, whose influential works continue to serve as points of departure for analysts of religion.

Meanwhile, a French tradition was developing out of the school of Durkheim that was in some ways analogous with and in others opposed to the British school. In this context structure has played a role akin to that of function. Claude Levi - Strauss has developed a complex theory of the way in which religious symbol and myth are transformed in the articulation by a culture of the cosmos in which it finds itself.

This brief treatment cannot do justice to the variety of approaches to the study of religion, but one thing should be made clear. Any approach taken in isolation from the others will lead to distortion and bias. The attempt to integrate a number of theories stemming from a wealth of traditions is necessary to grasp the character of the religions of the world.

Characteristics of Religion

Keeping in mind the dangers of general characterizations, what are the distinctive features of religion? Several concepts may be isolated that, even though not necessary or sufficient conditions if taken separately, may jointly be considered "symptomatic" of religions.

The Holy

Religious belief or experience is usually expressed in terms of the holy or the sacred. The holy is usually in opposition to the everyday and profane and carries with it a sense of supreme value and ultimate reality. The holy may be understood as a personal God, as a whole realm of gods and spirits, as a diffuse power, as an impersonal order, or in some other way. Although the holy may ultimately be nothing but the social order, a projection of the human mind, or some sort of illusion, it is nevertheless experienced in religion as an initiating power, coming to human life and touching it from beyond itself.

Religions frequently claim to have their origin in Revelations, that is, in distinctive experiences of the holy coming into human life. Such revelations may take the form of visions (Moses in the desert), inner voices (Muhammad outside Mecca), or events (Israel's exodus from Egypt; the divine wind, or kamikaze, which destroyed the invading Mongol fleet off Japan; the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ). Revelations may be similar to ordinary religious experience, but they have a creative originating power from which can flow an entire religious tradition.


Response to the holy may take the form of participation in and acquiescence to the customs and rituals of a religious community or of a commitment of faith. Faith is not merely belief but an attitude of persons in which they commit themselves to the holy and acknowledge its claim upon them. In a deeply religious person, faith commitment tends to shape all of that person's life and character.


As religious traditions develop, they generate systems of belief with respect to both practice and doctrine. These systems serve to situate the members of the religious tradition in the world around them and to make intelligible this world in relation to the holy. In early or primitive traditions this practice and doctrine usually find expression in bodies of myth or in ritual law. In those traditions which develop an extensive literate class, Theology often comes to supplant myth as the vehicle for refining and elaborating belief. The more this happens, the more the belief system has to be evaluated. The importance attached to right belief ("orthodoxy") has varied from religion to religion and from period to period. It has loomed large in Christianity, as for example in the great Christological and Trinitarian controversies from the 3d century onward.

Rituals and Liturgy

Religious traditions almost invariably involve ritual and liturgical forms as well as systems of belief. These may take the form of Sacrifice or Sacrament, Passage Rites, or invocations of God or the gods. The most important cultic acts are in most cases those performed by the entire community or a significant portion of it, although in many traditions private devotional forms such as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage are also practiced. A distinction is often made between religion and magic in this context. In magic, attempts are made to manipulate divine forces through human acts. In truly cultic acts such as prayer and sacrifice, the prevailing attitude is one of awe, worship, and thanksgiving.

Participation in communal rituals marks a person as a member of the community, as being inside and integral to the community that is articulated in the system of beliefs. That in many traditions the disfavor of the community is expressed in its barring a person from the important cultic acts is not surprising because these acts insure the proper standing of the individual and community in relation to the holy.

Ethical Codes

Connected with beliefs is yet another aspect of religion, the possession of an ethical code incumbent upon the members of the community. This is particularly evident in highly structured societies such as India, where the caste system is an integral part of traditional Hinduism. Marduk in ancient Babylon and Yahweh in ancient Israel were believed to be the authors of the laws of those nations, thus giving these laws the weight and prestige of holiness.

The Prophets of Israel were social critics who claimed that righteous acts rather than cultic acts are the true expression of religion. As religions develop, they come to place increasing stress on the ethical, and sometimes religion is almost totally absorbed into morality, with only a sense of the holiness of moral demands and a profound respect for them remaining.


Although religious solitaries exist, most religion has a social aspect that leads its adherents to form a community, which may be more or less tightly organized. In earlier times the religious community could scarcely be distinguished from the community at large; all professed the same faith, and the ruler was both a political and a religious leader. In the course of time, however, religious and civil societies have become distinct and may even come into conflict. In modern secular states - India and the United States, for example - a plurality of religious communities coexist peacefully within a single political entity. Each religious community, whether in a pluralistic or homogeneous society, has its own organized structure. A common though by no means universal feature of these religious organizations is a priesthood charged with teaching and transmitting the faith and performing liturgical acts.

Forms of Religious Experience

The complex phenomenon described above constitutes what may be called the religious experience of humankind. In different religions and in different individuals, one or more of the characteristics mentioned may predominate, whereas others may be weak or almost nonexistent. This difference explains why religion is best treated as a polymorphous concept and why it is better to see religions as linked by variable family likenesses than by some constant but elusive essence.

Basic Forms

Even though many varieties of religious experience exist, they seem to occur in two basic forms. In the first, the sense of the holy is conjoined markedly with an awareness of human finitude. This conjunction is expressed in Friedrich Schleiermacher's characterization of religion as a "feeling of absolute dependence"; it might be called the negative approach to religious experience. The awareness of the holy is set against the foil of finitude, sinfulness, and meaninglessness. At an earlier stage in his career, however, Schleiermacher defined religion differently - as the "sense and taste for the Infinite." Here the awareness of the holy is conjoined with the human experience of transcendence, of going beyond every state of existence to a fuller existence that lures on the human being. This method may be called the affirmative approach.

Although one approach or another may dominate, both belong to the full range of religious experience. Both find their place in Rudolf Otto's classic, The Idea of the Holy (1917; Eng. trans., 1923), as a person's encounter with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Mysterium points to the otherness of the holy; tremendum to its overwhelmingness in relation to human finitude; and fascinans to the lure that draws individuals out of and beyond themselves. Otto's work has been regarded as a masterly achievement in the phenomenology of religious experience.

Validity of Religious Experience

The question about the validity of religious experience must also be raised. Do religious people or worshiping communities encounter a holy reality that is outside of themselves and other than anything purely natural? Schleiermacher believed that the capacity for religious experience is universal in human beings. He therefore claimed that it could be accepted as self authenticating and could take the place of the traditional proofs offered for the existence of God. Few people today would concede Schleiermacher's claim. Not only might they deny having the kinds of experiences he described; they might also suggest quite different interpretations for them. Many traditional revelations, which seemed to be miracles in a prescientific age, might now be judged as natural events or coincidences.

Inner voices and private visions might be explained psychologically as subconscious mental processes. From Ludwig Feuerbach to Freud, belief in God has been explained as a projection of the human mind; Karl Marx and other social analysts have seen religious belief as the product of socioeconomic forces. Each of these naturalistic explanations of religious belief has drawn attention to some element that enters into the religious complex, but it may be questioned whether such theories account exhaustively for the phenomenon of religion. The question about the validity of religious experience must ultimately be dealt with by returning to rational arguments for and against theism or, more broadly, for and against the existence of some holy reality, despite Schleiermacher's arguments to the contrary.

A Typology

Any typology that attempts an ordering of religions is the product of a particular tradition in which others are seen relatively to its own centrality. For instance, starting from the perspective of the Christian experience of the holy as both transcendent and immanent makes possible the construction of a series in which the various traditions are related more or less closely to Christianity insofar as they emphasize one or the other. That is, Christian tradition strongly asserts the transcendence of God as an essential element in its Judaic heritage, but it just as strongly insists upon the immanence of God in the incarnation and in the sacraments. Roughly speaking, Judaism and Islam fall on the transcendent side of the series, whereas Hinduism and Buddhism fall more on the immanent.

A detailed analysis along these lines, taking into account the variety of traditions within Christianity, reveals illuminating affinities, as for example between Calvinism and Islam and among the various mystical traditions. Thus the construction of a typology, despite the limitations of any given perspective, draws attention to both the unity and diversity of religions.


In a world where the status and future of religion is in so many ways uncertain, understanding of religious concepts is not likely to be reached with extreme views, whether this extremism takes the form of a dogmatic and isolationist claim to the superiority of an individual's own faith or a vague blurring of the genuine differences among the traditions. A middle ground must be established by those who accept the need for patient dialogue to uncover and explore both the agreements and disagreements among the religions. This third way aims at deepening the commitment and understanding of religious groups in their own traditions while at the same time making them more open to and ready to learn from other traditions.

John Macquarrie

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M Pye, Comparative Religion (1972); L Rosten, ed., Religions of America (1975); E J Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History (1975); L D Shinn, Two Sacred Worlds: Experience and Structure in the World's Religions (1977); N Smart, The Phenomenon of Religion (1973) and The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (1973); W C Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (1963) and Faith and Belief (1979); R H Thouless, An Introduction to the Psychology of Religion (1971); J D J Waardenburg, Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion (1973), and Reflections of the Study of Religion (1978); J Wach, Joachim, The Comparative Study of Religions (1958); R J Z Werblowsky, Beyond Tradition and Modernity: Changing Religions in a Changing World (1976); R C Zaehner, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths (1959).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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